The following graphic description of the interior of the State is from "Sketches on Iowa," contributed by Mrs. Frances D. Gage to the New York Tribune, in the summer of 1854:
"I have just risen from the perusal of a long and interesting letter from 'Our Own Reporter,' to The Tribune, dated St. Paul, June 8th, 1854, and have responded 'True' to all the glowing descriptions of the beauty, fertility, and magnitude of the country bordering upon the Upper Mississippi; and feeling that the beauty, fertility, and excellence of the interior, are fully equal, if not superior, to the borders, I am impelled to give you a few jottings by the way of a journey just ended, from Burlington to Oskaloosa, and thence back to Keokuk. We had no great party to give eclat to our goings or comings; no music nor dancing, no celebrations, no festivals nor feasting, to gild with rainbow hues the surrounding landscape; but of speech-making we had plenty, and an endless variety; as good and sensible, too, perhaps, as if spoken by lips quivering with the excitement of pride, ambition, or sparkling Catawba, and feeling upon ears as capable of appreciation, as those dulled by hurry, sensuality, bustle, and fatigue. My business was to lecture on temperance and 'Woman's Rights' to the people, and of course I had time, in my few days of leisure at the towns by the way, to learn somewhat of the country; and changing my travelling companions every few miles of my journey brought me in contact with all classes and kinds of people, from the immovable Dutchman to the cute Yankee speculator; and from stage-coach speeches we will draw our ideas of the impression made p76 upon the explorers by this interesting country. 'Well, this is e'en-a‑jest the garden of Eden, anyhow!' broke out an old man from Maine, who had been studying the landscape for some hours in silence. He was 'hunting homes for his boys.'
" 'Bless my stars, mother, look at that!' exclaimed a loquacious New-Yorker to his better-half, who seemed looking back, like Lot's wife, to the worn-out lands of Oswego. 'Do n'tº that make your mouth water? These corn-fields look as if fifty years old; not a stump nor a stone. Look at that fellow plowing. His horse walks as if he had nothing behind him. What a furrow he rolls up! soft as a garden-plat, rich as a stable-yard.'
" 'I'll give it up,' says a stately Canadian. 'I have been looking all the way from Paris, in Canada, through Ohio, Illinois, and Wisconsin for something better, and it has grown better all the way; but better than this is no use: I'll give it up. Come, wife, let's get out and go back. You wanted clear streams, and here they are. I wanted timber, stone, and prairie, and I've found them all. Let's go back, gather up the chicks, and come to Iowa.'
" 'They tell'd us this was little the puttyest place this side o' sundown, but I thought it half gas; but by shucks they did n'tº tell half on 't. Uncle Nate told us we'd never want to go back to Monroe.'
" 'I reckon we won't neither,' says a stout young man to his cherry-cheeked wife; putting his hand, at the same time, near a side-pocket, where, probably, the treasure was secreted that was to purchase a new home.
p77 "'Magnificent — grand — beautiful!' ejaculated the gentleman in gloves, with linen coat over his broadcloth; 'these lands will be worth ten dollars an acre in five years, every rood of them. Ten years will make this country equal to the most favored sections of New York, Pennsylvania, or Ohio. Look; is that not splendid? rolling prairie, just enough to drain it; vale, hill, woodland, park, lawn, grove, meadow, field, shrubbery, and garden, and all in luxuriant bloom and beauty from Nature's own hand; brooks, running over pebbly beds, gushing springs, or wells easily made, of clear and sparkling water. Is it not brief?'
" 'Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!' echo the ladies.
" 'Beau‑ti‑ful!' answers the quail from the topmost rail of that stake-and‑rider fence around that magnificent field of rye.
" 'Beau‑t‑iful, beautiful!' whistles the whippoorwill at mid-day, in the dark grove of elms and oaks by the wayside. He had only changed his dolorous note to suit the sunshine.
" 'Iowa for me!' says the young wife.
" 'Bright and beautiful as a fairy dream!' says the merry maiden.
" 'Now, ladies and gentlemen,' says an old stranger — old — he had been ten years in Iowa — 'if you are so taken with this, just hold on. Do n't cry out till you get up about Oskaloosa, and round about there; up into Mehaska,º Marion, Warren, Lucas, Monroe, Madison, and so on, clear out to Council Bluffs; such land for farming is not anywhere p78 else on this Continent — not even in California — I have seen it all.'
" 'Well, gentlemen, it is all good; and it is pretty hard to tell which is best.'
"Such is the tone of conversation among the explorers of this new country on the steamers, which at this season navigate the Des Moines River, and in the coaches. On roads where, three years ago, a coach twice a week was ample, now, two lines a day are required, and six or seven coaches, frequently, to carry the passengers.
"Mount Pleasant is a flourishing town, •twenty-five miles from Burlington (reached by a plank road), contains 1200 inhabitants, and will have a railroad through it in less than a year — good churches and good people.
"Fairfield, the seat of justice of Jefferson County, is twenty-five miles from Mount Pleasant. Here are 1500 people, and everything active, vigorous, and progressive. Twenty-five miles further on is Ottumwa, built upon a fine slope on the Des Moines. It has been a little stagnant for a year or two, on account of the suspension of the Des Moines improvement, which is now about to be renewed by an eastern company, and will be speedily completed; for when any country demands a work that will pay as well p79 as this will, there will always be found men and capital to do it. Oskaloosa, the county-seat of Mahaska, is on the prairie; the Des Moines is four miles distant, upon one side, and the south fork of Skunk River two miles, on the other. It is thus bordered on either side by living streams and heavy timber. Ten years since, it was made the seat of justice; then a place where a few settlers had reared their cabins, seeing, with prophetic eye, what must follow. Now, it has from 2000 to 2500 inhabitants, and 100 buildings, it is said, will be erected this season. Every house and room is full, and every day brings new accessions to their numbers. The railroad will pass through this beautiful town in less than two years. Knoxville, the county-seat of Marion, is a village of 1500 inhabitants. Pella, where a colony of Hollanders located six or eight years ago, near the border of Marion, has now its 600 people. A convention was held there held the last week in May, and arrangements made for erecting a College under the patronage of the Baptist denomination. At Oskaloosa, they have now a Normal School. At Fairfield and Mount Pleasant, Female Seminaries and Colleges are in the process of erection. The dwellers in the East have, as yet, no conception of this beautiful State, its present improvements, its progress, or its resources.
"The prairies are high and rolling, and bordered with timber. In many places Nature seems to have laid out the farm expressly for man's use, and cleared the meadow, corn-field, and orchard, leaving no stump, tree, or bush to interfere with the plow, covering it with deep and matted p80 roots of grass to preserve the soil and enrich it for future use. Grove and parks surround it; running streams and brooks, rippling merrily over pebbles and sand, refresh it; shrubbery and underbrush supply the new beginners with rich fruits — plums of fine quality, resembling the apricot, wild cherries, gooseberries, smooth and large, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, grapes; all of superior quality to those growing wild in the middle States, and in quantities inexhaustible. Potatoes, both sweet and Irish, are very fine; corn, magnificent; and all agree in one thing — that one-half of the labor will produce a better crop than in the farming lands of Ohio.
"Here, then, by the side or under the cover of one of those rare old groves, the farmer may make his home, break up his prairie land, and in three years have his farm under better cultivation than in hilly woodland countries in fifteen. Apple and peach trees come to maturity very soon, and good nurseries are now to be found in many places. At Pella there is a very fine one, as well as a garden, owned by the learned and gentlemanly Mr. Scottel, who takes great pleasure in giving information to travellers. Timber, such as oak, walnut, hickory, maple, elm, and ash, is abundant. There are few large prairies — •five or six miles is the widest, oftener one or two, and still oftener less. Limestone, freestone, and stone-coal, without stint, and here and there quarries of a species of beautiful marble, made of marine deposits and shells, are found. Every necessary or comfort of life is here produced, or may be produced without difficulty or expense.
"The Des Moines River improvement offers great facilities for mills and manufactories, and the towns already started, where dams have been erected, give evidence of a prosperous future. At Napoleon may be found a woolen factory, with men and women busily engaged in doing good work. Their machinery is very good, but they have but just begun. A flour-mill, too, gives out its cheerful hum. Farmington is a pleasant town, twenty-five miles from Keokuk. Here a fine bridge spans the Des Moines, leading the way to Keosauqua, the seat of justice of Van Buren County, also a flourishing village. But I might fill columns, and yet not get to the end of these flourishing new towns, springing up, as it were, by magic, between night and morning.
"But the people — what of the people? exclaim your readers; what are they? Shall I say what I think? The people are the strong, earnest, energetic, are-thinking and right-feeling people of land. Its founders must have been wiser than most men, or they would not in the beginning have recognised all grog-shops as nuisances, and have made the vender of ardent spirits liable for his own transgressions. They must have been more just than common men, or they would not at first have secured the property rights p82 of the wife, and made her the judge guardian, with her husband, of her children. They must have been men more humane than common, or they would not have secured the homestead to the family. These good laws have led those of other States who wish to be wise, just, and humane, to become the dwellers of this fair land. Hence I hesitate not to say that it is the most moral and progressive, as well as the best-improved State, of its age, in all our country. The people of the East must cease to think of Iowa as 'way out West.' It is but half past one out here — not yet fashionable dinner-time; and the people who last year, or last week, or even day before yesterday, left New England, New York, Pennsylvania, or Ohio, with the last Harper or Putnam in their pocket, the last Tribune in their hand, the last fashion on their heads and shoulders, and the last reform in their hearts, are very much the same people in Iowa that their neighbors found them at home, only that a new country, log cabins, and little deprivations call out all their latent powers, cultivate the fallow grounds of heart and feelings, make them more free, more earnest, more charitable; in fact, expand, enlarge, and fit them all the better for life and its duties. Why will people live pent up in cities, amid the dust, and smoke, and din, while there is here so much of beauty, freshness, and utility unappropriated. 'There are millions of hands wanting acres, and millions of acres wanting hands.' True, Iowa may be said to be yet in its log-cabinage, but what of that? Ten years ago, the farmer of Marion went sixty miles to mill. What now? Steam mills are at their very doors. Then, p83 as my sister said, for weeks I saw not a woman's face. Now, from my door, I count the friendly, cheerful smoke of twenty home-fires. We ate and slept in these cabins. There was peace, plenty, and cheerfulness.
"Not one — not one desponding wife or mother did we find; not one willing to go back and live in the old States. 'Look,' they would exclaim, 'at our corn, our young orchard; our cows are so fine, our chickens are almost Shanghais, our gardens astonish us; we can afford to live cramped ourselves for houseroom when everything else expands so fast. We shall build in a year or two, when we get our plans laid." Fourth-rate lawyers, doctors, and ministers will do well to remember that the people of Iowa have not yet forgotten the sound of the voices of the good and great they have left behind. Merchants need not take old goods to Iowa, nor faded belles flatter themselves that last year's fashions will answer. 'Anything' won't 'do out West' any more. I went, with other ladies, to a political meeting at Oskaloosa to hear the free-soil Whig nominee for Governor talk to the dear people. The men looked just like men elsewhere, only they were a little more civil and genteel, and did not make quite so general a spittoon of the Court-House; and I did not see one that leaned towards drunkenness, though the house was full. I went to church; fine astrals, polished walnut, and crimson velvet made the pulpit look like home; ladies rustled rich brocades, or flitted in lawns as natural as life. The only point of difference that struck me was, that their bonnets, with a few exceptions, did not hang so exactly upon nothing as at the East; probably p84 because there was less of nothing to hang on. Then rosy cheeks, sparkling eyes, and free, vigorous steps, were every-day affairs. Altogether, the women were very healthy; and the children, poor little vulgar things — taking after their mothers, as children always will — looked as though they had all the air and sunshine they needed, and would positively be so unfashionable as to live (nine-tenths of them) through the second summer, and be men and women, despite teething, chin-coughs, mumps, and measles.
"Burlington and Keokuk are important towns, but too well known and understood in their infant prosperity to need comment. It would require a chapter to give them their due. I hope your reporter, who was at Keokuk while we were there, will do them justice.
"To sum up all, this is the most beautiful country that I have ever seen; and when the land of active industry and energy has overcome the difficulties necessarily attendant upon a new country, and art and wealth have embellished what nature has made so grand, it will be, as the old man said, 'almost the garden of America.' "
The following was communicated to the Progressive Era by a former citizen of Illinois:
"It is only within a few weeks that I became an unwilling resident of this State. I say unwilling, because the attachment I felt for my native State and its institutions was so strong, that the idea of severing the connection predisposed me to disparage the advantages of that State p85 which was to cause the separation. I had heard glowing accounts of Iowa, and, though interested in her success, was more solicitous for the welfare of Illinois, and somewhat inclined to exaggerate her natural advantages, when compared with those of other States. I knew that in many parts, as a farming country, Illinois was unexceptionable, and that the natural scenery was good; indeed, I often thought it impossible that her beautiful rolling prairies could be surpassed; but, to confess the truth, so far as I can judge of the natural advantages of a State from outward appearances, I must give Iowa the preference. Every step of my trip through the State has contributed something to the formation of this conclusion in spite of my resolve to be displeased. Even now a glance from my window discloses a scene I have rarely beheld equalled; just before me the high, rolling prairie, is stretching away for miles, and rising higher and higher in the distance, until the green of its bosom afar up grows dim, and seems almost lost in the blue of the sky. Flanking the prairie on either side, and cutting across in various directions, are large strips of timber, which, ten years ago, were the homes of wild deer and the hunting-grounds of the Indian. Still nearer, and passing through our beautiful and prosperous village, the Cedar River takes its way; as lovely and romantic a stream as any to which Burns, or Campbell, or Moore has ever given celebrity in verse, nor wanting in many of those thrilling legends which have heretofore furnished the foundations of some of our best poetical effusions."
The following is from a series of letters descriptive of a p86 journey from Council Bluffs to Keokuk, by Mr. Barcom, former editor of the Ohio State Journal:
"Before beginning my trip westward, I took the map of that region, and studied the geography of the country, and the locations of certain towns, with reference to their probable future. The result of this examination was, that from their natural positions, Fort Des Moines was destined to be the city in central, and Council Bluffs the great city in western Iowa. The only remaining question in my mind was, whether they had a rich fertile country about them, that would back up and support a city. This is indispensable, and to this question I paid particular attention. In other letters I have expressed my opinion of the future of Council Bluffs. I am now ready to say what I think of Fort Des Moines.
"The River Des Moines is the great river of Iowa. It is fully as large as the Muskingum, the largest river in Ohio, and in many striking particulars reminds me of that stream. Rising in the northwest part of the State, it traverses its territory to the extreme southeast corner. About half way up it, and where the Raccoon River intersects it from the west, the city of Fort Des Moines has its locality. Like Pittsburg, the town plat is on a beautiful tract of land, being the point or tongue between these two rivers. Several hundred acres of level, dry, bottom-land, afford a fine location for a town. The hills back are very beautiful, p87 and afford many most charming sites for residences. On one of them, a fine tract, commanding a most splendid view, has been set apart by the proprietor as a donation for the site of the State House when the people move the capital of the State there, as they will undoubtedly do in due time. The town is finely laid off. The lots are 66 feet by 132. The streets are generally 80 feet in width. There are not many prominent buildings yet, as the town is quite new. It has been but two or three years since it began to feel its importance, and to start in its career to a higher position. No part of the town is yet compactly built; and the question which are to be the business streets, appears to be quite as much an open one as it is at Council Bluffs. The Davenport Railroad passes through this place. It is to cross the Des Moines on a substantial bridge, and continue a west course, through the north of the centre of the town, to its depôt grounds, which have been procured, and which are ample for the purpose. Owners of property near the railroad and depôt think that it is to be the seat of future business, while others, holding property elsewhere, are equally certain that it will be nearer the point. Time alone will settle the dispute.
"Fort Des Moines was for many years a military post in the midst of the Indian country, and it is only within a short time that it has begun to improve. It has about the same population as Council Bluffs — from 1500 to 2000 — but the land-speculation fever rages there much more severely than at the Bluffs. City lots sell high, and there is quite a traffic going on in town property, out lots, &c. p88 Many persons go there to invest, but leave, thinking that real estate is entirely beyond its value. It is no doubt true, that persons who would otherwise settle and build there are sometimes driven off by the high price of lots. When I presented this view of this subject to some of the citizens, the answer was, 'How can we help it? People from abroad come here and offer us these high prices for our property. It is their fault; not ours.' I confess there was plausibility in the response, but it did not in the least remove the difficulty.
"Fort Des Moines has an abundance of timber about it; also good building stone, of lime and sand formation. It has also an abundance of coal; and the soil of the entire country is exceedingly rich and productive. It has about it one of the richest farming sections of the State; and, with all these advantages, it must make a city of some importance. The railroads of the Des Moines Valley and the Davenport Road make it a point. It is at the head of navigation on the Des Moines. Steamboats ply between here and Keokuk during several months; and the great work of improving it by slack-water navigation is again about to be resumed. It requires twenty-nine dams and locks; but the General Government has appropriated about a million acres of land, and a company of energy and high character have undertaken the work. I think Fort Des Moines is destined to be the most important inland town of the State."
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
Iowa As It Is in 1856
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 23 Oct 18